Metra Headaches Continue While Quinn Forms Committee to Reform Transit

Governor Pat Quinn delivers remarks highlighting the installation of automated external defibrillator (AED) devices on Metra rail cars.
Governor Quinn, center, and now-resigned board chairman Brad O'Hallaoran (gold tie) at Metra's Millennium Station in December. Photo: Quinn's office.

A fifth Metra board member gave up his post Thursday after the Chicago Tribune wrote that Stanley Rakestraw no longer lived in suburban Cook County  – as required – and the person who appointed him, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, asked him to tender resignation. Board members are resigning after allegations of double dipping (for being on two governmental boards simultaneously), patronage hiring and promoting, and for giving former Metra CEO Alex Clifford a severance package potentially worth over $700,000 in exchange for keeping quiet. The full amount would be available to Clifford if he fails to find a new job.

Meanwhile, Governor Pat Quinn today created the “Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, an “independent panel of transit, finance and good government leaders who will issue recommendations to reform the mass transit system in northeastern Illinois”. The panel’s aim is to investigate fraud and waste and it seems the task force will spend more time investigating the Regional Transportation Authority, which has oversight of Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace – the three “service boards.”

Members of the “blue-ribbon” panel include Carole Brown, former chairperson of the Chicago Transit Authority board, Patrick Fitzgerald, former U.S. Attorney for this region, and Kathryn Tholin, CEO of Center for Neighborhood Technology. The task force will have co-chairs: George Ranney, CEO of Metropolis Strategies, who has proposed merging the Regional Transportation Authority into the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning; and Ann Schneider, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation. Two union leaders, an advocate for people with disabilities, and a former CTA bus driver will join the panel.

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RTA's CEO Joe Costello speaks at an event to promote transit. Photo: RTA.

Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business says the panel has a tough road ahead and doubts “how much it will actually achieve.” He writes:

For instance, Mr. Ranney, president and CEO of Metropolis Strategies, a civic group, and Ms. Brown long have been gunning to dismantle the Regional Transportation Authority, which arguably has been ineffective in regulating Metra, Pace and the CTA and which City Hall argues sucks up money that could go directly to CTA operations. Mr. Ranney has proposed merging RTA into the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Hinz reports that Joe Costello, head of the RTA, “would like his agency empowered, rather than merged away.” DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin, whose own appointee to the Metra board – Paul Darley – resigned last month, is concerned about Metra being affected by the “Chicago machine.”

Ventra press event
Metra will not be joining the Ventra ticketing system.

Transitized author Shaun Jacobsen wrote of his three “wish list” ideas on how to make the RTA more effective from a passenger perspective. The first, he said, should be “seamless ticketing.” He notes that this is required by law for all three service boards by 2015, yet only CTA and Pace have a solution. Jacobsen also posted that CTA president Forrest Claypool doesn’t want his agency to be included in RTA’s structural changes, “because unlike scandal-scarred Metra, the CTA is ‘accountable to the voters,’ who know ‘the buck stops’ with the mayor,” the Sun-Times reported.

The Chicago Tribune editorial board suggested today that everyone else should resign, without which “lofty paeans to restoring faith in Metra will mean nothing.” The editorial proposes a test for whatever reforms the panel outlines: “Would this oversight structure encourage the hiring of top administrators who will run safe, efficient transit operations…transit bosses who won’t play by the rules of Illinois politics?”

Chicagoland deserves a world-class transit system, but Metra drags down the region while CTA charges ahead. Will there be Illinois politics as usual, or can Quinn’s panel come up with reform ideas that the state legislature can act upon? I’m curious to see if the panel recommends that voters should elect the service board members and if this affects next year’s gubernatorial election.

  • Stephen Smith

    Level boarding and then fire (or, better yet, reassign as drivers) the conductors and transition to a proof-of-payment system (or, for the busiest lines, fare gates – I believe the Illinois Central tried this in the postwar years, but was thwarted by the unions?) ticketing system. Up the frequency (use obsoleted conductors to drive trains), lower the fares (labor savings!). Eventually connect the regional rail terminals and implement through-running, and apply for an FRA waiver to buy off-the-shelf European rolling stock (rumor is that the FRA is much more open to this than it has been in the past), and have fares unified with the L. Anything else is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic/fiddling while Rome burns/pick your metaphor.

  • Adam Herstein

    Fire the whole lot of them and disband the RTA.

  • John

    This will be interesting and I hope it reveals what influences and drives Metra.

    After 5 years of commuting on Metra I’ve been surprised at how little has changed. It always struck me as archaic – the rolling stock from the 1950’s, the multiple conductors on each train, the lack of ticket machines, the lack of live information screens at stations – but it seems forever to be this way.

    The rider experience is unique and feels like going back in time. How can Metra have escaped what has driven other transit systems to modernize?

  • Chicagio

    I really appreciate your last paragraph. People always look at me weird when i say that Metra is the worst run of the 3 transit agencies. The CTA has the most difficult job to do. They need to serve all users, all hours of the day, including rougher neighborhoods, all with completely aged infrastructure, which they own and have to maintain. They run through the city which means any expansion of the system or the simple act of placing a new bus stop usually means dealing with a labyrinth of property interests. Yet the CTA is still willing to help shape land-use around their stations to be sure that TOD actually happens.
    Metra is perfectly content to serve middle-class suburban forward commuters. They don’t own many of their tracks. When they do get a chance to expand, they completely botch the plans. (They only built one additional track for the north central line which means trains still routinely get delayed by freight traffic. Reverse commuters get a 7:10 and a 9:00 morning train and only one evening train, gee thanks) All their stations exist only in a sea of parking and, in the year 2013, they still haven’t figured out a way around on-board cash fares and lines of monthly pass users waiting for a paper ticket. They’re not very bike friendly. Their weekend schedules (assuming your line actually runs on the weekend) are a joke. One train every 2 hours? yeah, that sounds useful.

    I could go on but I’m just glad to find a metra sympathizer.

  • Fred

    Money and a captive audience.

    They have no money and riders without any real alternatives. What motivation is there to change?

  • Anonymous

    The Inner Circ was among the the best performing transit projects CMAP modeled as part of GoTo 2040, but it was to be a METRA project and got shuffled to the bottom because METRA didn’t support it. Freight conflicts, they said. . . funny they operate with freight conflicts already and manage to work them out.

    An Outer Circ instead of an Inner Circ that would connect to both E/W CTA rail and E/W METRA lines. I wonder what that does for sprawl?

    Guess METRA wanted to put their money into a lesser performing Star Line, which couldn’t possibly have anything to do with demographics and politics.

    Nah, METRA is above politics.

  • Al Lux

    please inform the ignorant here – what exactly are the inner and outer circ projects??

  • Anonymous

    I interviewed for a job with Metra in the Strategic Capital Planning department a few months ago (technically still haven’t been informed that they are not going to hire me but they appear to be busy right now :) The HR rep mentioned that 25% of the admin staff were getting ready to retire in the next two years. Change is coming whether or not the political elite wants it to.

  • Anonymous

    Both are prospective major capital projects that competed for a spot at the table in the regional planning process – to be included in adopted list of fiscally constrained and air quality conformed major capital projects to be implemented in the region over the planning horizon (2040).

    The proposed Star Line is essentially an “Outer Circ” plan, though it carries the more palatable moniker “Star Line.” The Inner Circ (“Inner Circumferential Rail Service”) didn’t get the same marketing consideration, though it performed better. Both were presumed to be METRA-sponsored projects, but METRA sorta inherited the latter by default so they really didn’t have ownership (or support for it).

    The Star Line runs on a N/S alignment, generally, somewhat west of IL-59 for most of its length, though it heads into O’Hare at the north end.

    The Inner Circ, on the other hand, would have run roughly between Midway and O’Hare following the IHB alignment (west Cook County, roughly 25th Avenue, which is a bit east of Mannheim).

    See here for the evaluations:
    http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=958b1824-fd2d-44fc-923e-82a2607e56ed&groupId=20583

    A few noteworthy highlights:

    Star: 800 new jobs
    Inner Circ: 2,200

    Star: No significant change in regional income
    Inner Circ: $127,000,000

    Star: No significant change in congestion relief
    Inner Circ: 13,000 hours reduced

    Star: 58,000 jobs accessible by transit <75 min
    inner Circ: 68,000 accessible

    Results do indicate that the Star Line is supposed to reduce more car trips, though: 38,000 to 9,000 for Inner Circ.

    Star also serves sprawlandia and would surely induce growth (and traffic beyond Rte 59, perhaps even beyond the ever-expanding planning area.

    Star website: http://metraconnects.metrarail.com/star.php

    Inner Circ website: Non-existent.

  • Al Lux

    Thanks for the information. Quite fascinating. I had heard of the Star Line, but this is the first time I am hearing of the Inner Circ. I had heard of the Circle Line, but of course that is/was a CTA project and something entirely different.

  • Is there any idea how Metra is going to adhere to the seamless fare law without joining Ventra? Last I heard they wanted to do smartphone ticketing…?

    What they need to do is (this is in my wish list!) the proof of payment system with Ventra. By far the easiest to implement. No turnstiles, and they’ll also get relatively good ridership data by moving in that direction as well.

  • bartm

    I think calling it a seamless fare law is a misrepresentation. Here is what the law says: “By January 1, 2015, the
    Authority must develop and implement a regional fare payment system.
    The regional fare payment system must use and conform with established
    information security industry standards and requirements of the
    financial industry. The system must allow consumers to use contactless
    credit cards, debit cards, and prepaid cards to pay for all fixed-route
    public transportation services.”

    As long as Metra comes up with some system that uses contactless credit, debit, and prepaid cards, they will be in compliance. There is no requirement that it be the same system that the CTA uses.

    And the law spells out no penalty for failure to comply.

  • But how would that be a regional fare payment system? Because Metra covers the whole region and provides a “fare payment system” it would be regional? (Rhetorical, somewhat…)

  • Metra continues to buy the same old rolling stock, an inefficient “gallery car” design that has a single entry point (with steps).

  • A waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration (or relaxed regulations altogether) to allow Metra and other agencies nationwide to purchase off-the-shelf European rolling stock is extremely important to Metra’s future. Their current equipment is extremely inefficient compared to what is available right now on the worldwide market. There are no domestic manufacturers and Metra is forcing its contractor, Nippon Sharyo of Japan, to build more of Metra’s obsolete “gallery car” design.

  • bartm

    Sure: RTA’s regional fare plan is “On CTA and Pace use a Ventra card, on Metra use a-card-to-be-named later.” That plan covers the whole region.

  • bartm

    Never mind. Metra just changed its mind about Ventra. More money for Cubic!!!

    http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20130817/news/708179919/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

  • Now let’s see if Metra can actually install machines so you don’t need to TALK TO A HUMAN to buy a fare with your Ventra touchless card. :->

  • ⦿ Ladies, I came here for more #CommuterClues.

  • WTHeck. This is a nice surprise.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not an inefficient design. Considering the constraints of Metra, with low platforms and conductors checking tickets, it’s about the best design you could ask for, and delivers maximum capacity. The single exit is just as wide as two of the exits on an Amtra

  • Kennicott

    I hope George Ranney gets his wish of eliminating the RTA – they really accomplish very little of value to the region. Mostly they duplicate research and planning work already being done by the three agencies. It was never given the authority to do anything meaningful, so it ended up as a vestigial organization.

  • There are passenger car designs with low floors and multiple entry doors that are being used on freight lines across North America.

    This is the most common alternative available:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombardier_BiLevel_Coach

  • Anonymous

    How are these superior to the gallery cars? They have more doors, but each door is narrower, so the total capacity is the same. In the gallery car, the conductor needs to make only one pass to collect tickets above and below, and good sight lines allow conductors to monitor both levels at the same time.

  • If there’s only one door, the car can load half as fast, meaning people stand on the platform at Union or Ogilvie waiting to get ON twice as long. Just for starters …

  • Fbfree

    The top level seating is uncomfortable, headroom is a joke, and circulation through and out of the car is restricted. I’ve ridden quite a bit on Bombardier bi-levels, and they are far superior for all users than the Metra gallery cars.

  • Fbfree

    I just read through the document. Another proposal that strikes me as odd is an improvement to the UP-W line by moving the B-2 junction 1 mile east. It seems to me that instead of just replacing the junction, the Milwaukee trains should go to Ogilvie and the UP-W trains to Union. Talk about the costs of holding one’s turf.

  • FG

    Metra got rid of the turnstyles & magnetic tickets on Metra Electric maybe 10 years ago now (they were installed in the early 70’s when the highliners were purchased by the IC) after endless complaints from riders about the hassle of the system – they were often broken, and, since many stations are shared with the South Shore Line which uses a different ticketing system many people using that line missed trains, along with jumping the faregates (which required ticket checks anyway), Metra elected to remove the system. The conductors are required because all the Metra lines run on share mainline tracks (a case could be made for exempting the electric) and FRA requirements mean two crew members. Plus it adds a layer of security to Metra which the cta lacks.

  • FG

    Changing to the full double-decker car might also mean compatibility issues with the existing rolling stock – Metra isn’t just going to go out and buy all new when a lot of theirs is fairly new.

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